On Reading Non-Fiction

Somehow, it’s already May, and I am currently seven books behind on my modest Goodreads challenge for the year.

This seems to be a fairly standard state of affairs for me.

Two years ago, in 2020, I set a goal to read 50 books. I aimed to read at least 30 minutes per day, and I met that goal most days. In fact, on the days when I did read, I usually ended up reading longer than 30 minutes–usually more like an hour. I only read fiction that year, and I even managed to read some really beastly long books (I’m looking at you, Les Misérables). And yes, I did read 50 books.

So in 2021, I upped the ante to 75 books. I started out okay, but between a fairly steady amount of contract work, all the moving nonsense, and a whole lot of mental and emotional exhaustion, it was just not going to happen last year. I am amazed that I read 29 books, and I think the only reason for that is because I include a whole bunch of Agatha Christie audiobooks in that tally, and I had a whole bunch of driving time when I could listen to them.

In any case, I dropped my goal back to 50 this year, but I also went back to reading non-fiction. I have always enjoyed a good non-fiction work, from history to biography to “how to” or self-help. I took a break from non-fiction to focus on fiction because 1) I still have this massive list of Books I Must Read Before I Die, and 2) I thought reading fiction would help me write it better (jury’s still out on that one).

I felt like it was time to add some non-fiction back into the book rotation for a few reasons…

  • There are just a lot of really good non-fiction books out there on topics I’m curious about, and I was tired of putting them off because I was trying to slog through the massive reading list.
  • I joined a non-fiction book club focused on reading recent business/business-adjacent books. I work with many of these folks on a regular basis, and I wanted to keep up with what they’re reading, so I thought participating in their book club would be a great way to stay accountable AND current.
  • I need some palate cleansers and some faster reads. As I continue to slowly progress through Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, it’s nice to have some other things to keep me from getting stuck in this intricate world. (I think I’ll have more to say about this trilogy later, but I need to finish it first.)

So now that I’m back to reading some non-fiction… Here are a few takeaways:

Non-Fiction is Reading Cross-Training

I love me some really good character-driven fiction, there’s no question. But I’m reminded of the dangers of going too far in one direction. It’s just like with anything else. If I only run and never lift weights or stretch, I injure myself and risk becoming weak. If I only write and never make time for knitting or crocheting, I get creative blocks. Just so with reading–by immersing myself in fiction, I overdevelop one side of my brain and underdevelop the other side. It’s like eating too much candy or something–non-fiction is the salad of the literary world, and I love a good salad.

I Learn a Lot About Fiction From Non-Fiction

It’s not just learning about the specific topics. Non-fiction is also a way to learn a lot about human nature, leadership mistakes, habits of the past and present, social science, and on and on. All of these things can go into my fiction writing. Over the weekend, I devoured Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which is the story about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal. I can promise you there is much to be learned about character in such a story as this.

It Makes Me Smarter

A couple of the books I’ve read so far this year have had a real impact on the way I think about things and approach work, relationships, and self-management. I’ve been focusing on my habits for some time, but Atomic Habits gave me some good ideas for improving and getting back on track where I’ve been struggling. Think Again made me rethink how I approach issues, problems, and obstacles, and it gave me some tools to help my own personal re-evaluations going forward. If I can glean just one or two good pieces of information from these books, I can come away a smarter person.

They Help Me in My Freelance Work

This should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: since I write so much business copy, reading business books keeps my writing sharper and more readable for a business audience. These books also keep me up-to-date on how businesses are communicating these days–what words and concepts are in vogue, how to talk about those things without being a blowhard, and what to avoid either because it’s overused or because it’s outdated. And for better or for worse, my freelance work is here to stay for the foreseeable future (until I start making an equivalent amount selling fiction), so for now, I need to keep honing my skills.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t love every non-fiction book I’ve read so far this year or really ever. If I never read another Brené Brown book, I’ll be okay with that. And historically, there have been some real snoozers in my non-fiction mix; in those cases, I need to break up the monotony with short, easy fiction reads!

But going forward, I think I’ll return to my old habit of having one non-fiction and one fiction book going at the same time. Sometimes you need a salad, sometimes you need cake.

It’s about balance.

Tell me your favorite non-fiction reads over the past few years! I’d love to add some more to my TBR list!


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